After playing a crucial role in Nigeria’s 15th semi-final AFCON berth, Arsenal playmaker Alex Iwobi opens up about his tournament debut, England rejection and the influence of his legendary uncle Jay-Jay Okocha.
Gernot Rohr’s men advanced to the last-four after hard fought 2-1 win over Bafana Bafana in which towering defender William Troost-Ekong scored the winner in the dying moments of the game.
Iwobi played a key role with an assist for Samuel Chukwueze’s opener on Wednesday, helping them seal their place in the semi-final of the competition.
“I don’t think we actually set a main target before participating in the AFCON, we never said that reaching the semi finals was our main goal. We only look at the African competition step-by-step and game-by-game. We try to beat the teams who come up against and we have been able to do that. Hopefully we can go further and reach the final of the African competition.” Iwobi told KickOff at the teams’ hotel based in Cairo.
“Personally, reaching semifinals is a big achievement as this is my first AFCON but we still in it and still have a chance in winning it and that’s our aim now.Maybe the first two games we had more possession but now we don’t have much. We have to be smart when we have the ball and I think we’re playing better now.”
Super Eagles switch and uncle Okocha
After appearing for England U16, U17 and U18 sides, Iwobi switched allegiance to his country of birth in 2015. And he has gone on to make 34 appearances with the senior national team scoring six goals, which includes his strike against reigning champions Cameroon in the last-16.
“First, I want to thank England cause they gave me the opportunity and I grew up their and it was an honour to represent them with the youth teams but I grew up in Nigerian culture with my family and also my uncle Jay-Jay Okocha who is a Nigerian football legend. It was a hard decision but Nigeria is where I feel more at home,” the Gunners playmaker explained.
“I have been with Nigeria for almost four years now so they like to see me as a leader and always take my marks on the team and games but I am still young and sometimes people forget this. I have matured as a footballer and I have to mature as person as well.”
“My uncle Jay-Jay Okocha is my role model. He always texts me before and after every game. He always asks to bring the same mentality as a kid into the pitch and to enjoy playing football, I do this and I won’t change.”
Facing two-time Premier League winner and ex-Gunner
“Riyad Mahrez is a quality player but not only him. Algeria have world class players and it won’t be an easy game. If we were able to keep players like Mahrez quiet then we have a good chance,” Iwobi said.
“I can’t wait to play against Ismaël Bennacer who used to be my teammate in Arsenal. I have him on my snapchat but I’m not trying to message him, I don’t want to distract him. Now, I’m only trying to focus on our game against Algeria.
“I hope we repeat Nigeria’s achievement in 2013 by winning the AFCON but we know it won’t be easy. We try and make Nigerian people proud and I’m sure they are proud of us and they came to Egypt to support us and hopefully we make them happy by winning the title.”
Rohr’s side face off against Les Fennecs in the semi-finals of AFCON 2019 at the Cairo International Stadium on Sunday evening at 21:00 (GMT+2).